When an entrepreneur who wanted to open a convenience store on Bailey Avenue went to the Common Council to get approval, lawmakers already were skeptical, as police had advised against granting the license.
And when Saleh M. Nagi showed the Legislation Committee pictures of what the interior of the store looked like, his prospects went from bad to worse.
Some of the photos were not of shelves from Nagi’s store, but from a well-known chain store, Committee Chairman Darius G. Pridgen pointed out.
It didn’t take long for committee members to denounce what they considered to be an intentional effort to mislead them.
“This is plain deceitful,” Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk said. “This is a horrific way to advocate for a project.”
University Council Member Bonnie E. Russell, who represents the district in which the proposed store is located, called the photo fiasco “the craziest thing that has happened in a long time.”
The episode earlier this month occurred during the Council’s vetting process, which typically includes site inspections by the district lawmaker, interviews with store personnel, and questions about the kind of inventory that will be sold before a vote on the license is held.
As the Police Department did in sting operations last year, the Council has sought to get tough on neighborhood delis, which in some cases are magnets for loitering, drug deals and other criminal activity.
Advocates for store owners, meanwhile, have said that a few rogue stores have made people suspicious of law-abiding stores.
Nagi’s attorney, Nicholas P. Amigone III, appeared shocked and embarrassed when some of the photos were revealed to be not of the store in question, Buffalo Sunrise Express Market at 3172 Bailey Ave., and apologized for the “egregious error” in a letter hand delivered to Council members. He said it was a misunderstanding between himself and his client.
In his appearance before the Legislation Committee, Amigone made a case for why the store should be open despite the police recommendation, saying that the location was never a food store before and that his client planned to be an upstanding member of the University District community. The store is equipped with bullet-proof glass around the cashier and 16 security cameras and will not sell single diapers or cigarettes, the lawyer told lawmakers.
“My guy is an honest, hardworking guy, he’ll run a clean operation,” Amigone said in a later interview, adding that he is continuing to seek the license. “The application does not rise and fall on what is in those photographs,” he said.
Russell, however, is not inclined to grant the license and is referring the matter of the misleading pictures to the Erie County District Attorney’s Office in an attempt to make a case that will hold up in court for why the store should not be permitted to open. She stressed her concern is with Nagi, not Amigone.
The Police Department based its recommendation that the store not be allowed to open on recent criminal activity in the area related to loitering around other delicatessens.
In addition to granting licenses for new stores, the Council is charged with renewing licenses for nearly every food store every year. Before the Council votes to renew the licenses this year, Russell is seeking a review of police reports around each of the 388 stores on the list.
Franczyk said he is scrutinizing several stores in his district, including the Broadway Mart, at 1069 Broadway, where the license had been revoked, but was later re-instated in State Supreme Court.
Conditions at the Broadway Mart appear to have improved, said Marlies Wesolowski, executive director of the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Center, who has been critical of the deli. Wesolowski said the deli owner appears to be improving the property, and troublemakers are not hanging around the store, though that could be because the cold weather has driven them away, she said.
The store appeared to be clean during a visit this week, and a large “no-loitering” sign was posted at the entrance.
The owner of the store was not available to talk during a recent visit and did not respond to a request for an interview, but a representative of the Arab-American business community said stores should not be blamed for the problems around them.
“What are we supposed to do, stand out there with a gun? That’s the police’s job,” said Fred Merukeb, president of the Arab-American Businessmen Association of Western New York, which represents between 70 to 100 food stores in the city.
Merukeb said he is concerned that stores owned by Arab-Americans are being targeted unfairly and said they cannot be blamed for problems that plague many neighborhoods.
Nearly all of the stores follow city regulations, he said.
His group is working with churches and anti-violence organizations to address problems around the stores, he said.
“We care about Buffalo just like anybody else,” he said. “Of course there are rogue owners, and we want to get rid of them.”
The Council is also forming a task force with representatives from law enforcement, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and city departments to examine all business licenses the city grants, and brainstorm ways to clarify ordinances to make effective cases to shut down problem stores. The task force, which was conceived as a way to regulate delis but was expanded to include all businesses, will begin meeting once a representative from the district attorney’s office is appointed, Russell said.